When Revival Broke Out in Our Church
How Prayer Brought A Life-Changing Revival To Our Local Church
“For thus says the High and Lofty One Who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: "I dwell in the high and holy place, With him who has a contrite and humble spirit, To revive the spirit of the humble, And to revive the heart of the contrite ones.” (Isaiah 57:15)
Unbeknown to me, this Sunday morning would be different than any other during my 14 years as this congregation's pastor. It began like many others with a uplifting time of worship and prayer... but then I felt led of the Holy Spirit to do something out of the ordinary. I stepped down from the pulpit platform with a microphone on a stand, and placed it in the front center isle of the sprawling sanctuary.
While folks appeared curious about the microphone, I shared briefly about our need for God to send revival to our nation, our church, as well as our personal lives and families. I explained that for this to happen, we needed to humble ourselves and seek the Lord with all our heart, to become transparent with our shortcomings, to truly repent and turn away from our sins.
Opening my bible, I read a scripture from 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” I then shared another scripture that I believed pertained to our particular church and situation, from James 5:16: “Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”
For the three years I had served as pastor, we had been praying for the Lord to bring spiritual healing and renewal to this once-large congregation, that before our arrival had endured several years of splits, turmoil and controversies. While we were pleased that the church had stabilized under our ministry, it was obvious that a spiritual "barrier" still existed that hindered many lives from moving forward with God.
I briefly addressed these issues with the congregation, reminding them how we had all been praying for a spiritual breakthrough... and then said, "After these years of prayer I believe the Lord is leading us as a congregation to confront these matters in an more open and transparent expression of prayer and repentance." Of course, I was hoping to hear some loud Amen's... but they were silent, and appeared surprised or confused by what I had just said.
This wasn't what I expected. I had prayed extensively and felt that this is was what the Lord wanted me to say and do on this Sunday morning, but the lack of response was a surprise. I was tempted to back off and change directions, yet I was still convinced of the Lord's leading, and felt that I needed to move forward. So I stepped out in faith, to lead the way... by expressing my own repentance to God, and to the congregation, for my shortcomings as a pastor and leader. I admitted to everyone that in my impatience to see breakthrough come to our church, I had become snippy and rude in my demands for folks to come to prayer meetings... especially our leaders, and realized that I had unintentionally injured many with my impatience.
Standing at the microphone in the center aisle, I publicly asked their forgiveness, mentioning several by name, and asking for their prayers that the Lord would help make me a better minister and leader. Inwardly I was praying that this might be the beginning of what our church needed so badly... to become open, transparent, and humble before God and each other. But the congregation sat motionless and silent for a few minutes, that is until a prominent woman in the congregation rose from her seat. She walked up to me with tears streaming, and began to release a flurry of apologies to me and to God for her spiritual coldness and resistance, along with admissions of bitterness she had harbored toward others in the church.
As she wept and prayed publicly, the congregation was visibly stunned and overwhelmed... and soon others began coming forward. Before long a line had grown to a couple dozen who wanted to participate. I held the mic as they would take turns praying, asking the Lord and each other for forgiveness. Many were weeping, some were trembling... others instead proceeded to the altar, kneeling and weeping before the Lord. Several rose from their seats to seek out others in the congregation, with whom to ask forgiveness for prior things they had apparently done or said.
Needless to say, this was all quite astonishing. What had begun as a fairly traditional Sunday worship service had evolved into something of an impromptu, informal prayer meeting. The sounds of persons praying, worshiping or weeping filled the sanctuary. At least half the congregation, perhaps a couple hundred or so, were now on their knees at the altars, others had knelt at their seats, while many more continued to come forward, asking me for forgiveness, or expressing repentance to God and whoever else was listening. Of those who remained watching from the pews, all appeared completely shocked and glued to their seats. Other than the few scriptures I already shared, there was no preaching... and I simply continued to pray with those who kept coming forward. I eventually glanced at my watch to see if it was near our typical noon benediction time... I could hardly believe my eyes, it was nearly 2:00pm... and virtually no one had left the service.
As soon as I could gather the attention of the crowd again, I shared that we needed to break for the afternoon, but would gather again for our regular Sunday night service at 6:00pm. I explained that although the weather had turned unusually cold, even knocking out part of our heating system... we would not cancel the service, due to the unusual nature of what seemed to be occurring in the church. I was exhilarated at what had occurred thus far, but had no idea of what might happen in the later service... or if anyone would even come.
My concerns were soon put to rest. Just after 5:00pm, the first carload arrived... then another and another. Not only were they braving the weather, they were coming early... and had apparently called friends, relatives and absentees, whom many brought along with them. As we neared the 6:00pm starting time, it was clear that we were going to have a larger than normal crowd... and this time, they came with higher expectations than before. One of the first things I noticed was that the first several rows of pews were packed... instead of those usually at the rear.
I began the service pretty much as I had in the morning. I repeated much of what I shared previously about our need for repentance, reading scripture from James 5:16, Isaiah 57:15, Psalms 51:16-17 and especially 2 Chronicles 7:14. I then prayed briefly for the Lord to bring His revival to our church, and invited anyone to come forward to pray, share their heart, to repent or to pray as before.
This time the response came immediately, and soon a long line formed, many already crying, praying... waiting their turn to come before the microphone. Before long, the spontaneous sound of people weeping, repenting, worshiping, praising, singing... filled the atmosphere. It seemed as though the entire church had either gone to their knees at the altar or were in line to pray or confess some sin or shortcoming. People were hugging each other, weeping together, were asking each other for forgiveness. I was amazed... as was everyone else who watched all this happen.
The humility, confession and contrition expressed by these dear folks was nothing less than astonishing. It touched my heart deeply to hear such sincere, humble prayers of repentance from these folk... and as tears ran from my cheeks, as well as most everyone else, it helped me to understand how such a mutual exercise of contrition could break down hardness of hearts, and allow the Holy Spirit to work in hearts and lives. These were spontaneous sincere expressions between friends, neighbors or relatives... some who had harbored wounds or grudges against one another, or the church or the pastor for years.
It seemed as though a volcano of repentance erupted, releasing pent up stresses of unforgiveness and animosity, and was now spewing out a flowing lava of tears, reconciliation and forgiveness. Hardened hearts were becoming broken and softened... many wept openly, wrapping their arms around each other, praying for each other... others began to sing or worship, while some rejoiced with expressions of laughter and praise. So moved were many visitors, that dozens came to the altars to repent for their own sins. Teens and children who had never seen weepings from their parents, were so broken that they also went to their knees before the Lord. Scores of folks were now strewn about the sanctuary in a posture of prayer or worship. The altars were jammed, with no room left... others knelt at their seats... some were lying prostrate on the floor... many stood with their hands upraised, weeping and praising God.
When I drove home from the church sometime after midnight, I felt an overwhelming peace and joy... and wept so hard I could hardly see the road ahead of me. Yes, I could imagine that some probably thought that it was a quite strange and bizarre church service... but for me, I knew the extent of the spiritual breakthrough that had occurred. I was both exhausted and ecstatic, believing that after years of prayer and sacrifices, our church appeared to be on the threshold of something remarkable, a major spiritual breakthrough... which proved to be correct.
For the weeks to come, the services and prayer meetings became larger... and although there were no more open-mic public confessions, the services continued on with a tremendous response toward repentance and prayer. The worship and music became even more powerful and stirring... even my preaching seemed to become more effective and took on a renewed interest by the congregation.
People continued to come forward at the close of most services wanting to repent of sins. Souls were getting saved in significant numbers. Marriages were being healed, lives were being changed. A Steady flow of visitors were also coming through the doors and the attendances and finances were growing every Sunday.
Over a period of just a few months, several hundred persons received Jesus Christ as their Savior, and by the end of the year the church had more than doubled, and continued to grow in attendance. Every aspect of the church began to flourish, including the finances, which enabled us to add staff and make other advances.
This mighty spiritual wind continued on with similar fervor for about a year or so, and the subsequent breezes continued filling our sails for a few more years thereafter until the church returned to a more typical profile. Eventually, I came to feel that the Lord was moving us on to another pastorate, where I again sought to apply these powerful lessons of prayer, repentance and revival.
I regret that I don’t know more about the extraordinary mysteries of God. It seems that the more I learn, I only realize how little I really know. I’m grateful, however, for this extraordinary experience, and learned at least six important lessons about revival that have remained with me during my continued years of ministry:
1. Prayer and Repentance is the Key that will bring Revival... and needs to start from the top. The biggest thing I learned from all this is that honesty, transparency and humility by spiritual leaders is essential... along with a forthrightness to speak the truth in love. An arrogant "can-do-no-wrong" attitude held by a pastor, only distances the flock from his leadership and tends to reproduce those same attitudes within the fellowship. Sometimes leaders falsely think that it's a sign of "weakness" to humble themselves, to apologize for mistakes, confess shortcomings or admit that they could be wrong about anything. However it takes far more courage and maturity to be humble and contrite than to pretend that we’re somehow incapable of making mistakes.
At least in my case, especially due to the past history of this particular church, the congregation needed to see an example of humility, contrition and repentance from their pastor. My need to be contrite was not over any kind of moral failure or sins of that sort... but I needed to repent for being so harsh in my forthrightness at times, which was perceived as a lack of love that wounded precious hearts. And when I did so, it not only brought God's peace to my heart... but also inspired others to open their hearts and deal honestly with their own issues. This certainly didn’t hurt my ability to lead, but dramatically elevated their confidence and respect toward me as their pastor. I also learned first-hand that Biblical leadership is something that occurs from the “front”... to lead the way, to set an example, to show a pattern.
2. The Absence of Revival Means the Presence of Spiritual Hindrances. If it is true that repentance is an essential key to revival, as the famed late revivalist, Charles Finney and others interpreted from 2 Chronicles 7:14, then there must be "something that needs to be repented of"... some thing that hinders victorious spiritual life that needs to be turned away from or corrected. It may not always or necessarily be sins of “commission” that stand in the way... but could be matters of “omission” such as spiritual apathy or a neglect of the Word and prayer. Or it may involve carnality, worldliness, cares of the world... or possibly harboring of grudges, nursing wounds, hurt feelings, etc... issues that are not always regarded as sin.
“Busyness” or “ambition” are not necessarily bad things, but if “we” allow such preoccupations to come between us and God, they become sinful hindrances to our relationship with Him that we need to repent from. Satan uses ploys like this to steal spiritual victory from our lives as well as from the church. However, if God’s people will humble themselves and turn away from such diversions, God will begin to resuscitate, revive and refresh spiritual life again. Please note, repentance to God and toward each other is a good thing when needed, however “public” repentance or confessions may not always be appropriate. It’s just the spontaneous way it occurred in our congregation for that particular time, and seemed to be the catalyst that God used to release the flow of repentance to the larger body.
3. Genuine Revival in the Church Changes Everything. I know the challenges of pastoring a congregation that struggles spiritually... and also know what it is to pastor during great victory and spiritual awakening. There is no comparison. In an atmosphere of revival, things will begin to resemble the book of Acts. There will be an outbreak of answered prayers, miracles, healings, lives becoming transformed and people getting saved. It will not be as much of a burden to find workers and helpers. Gimmicks or programs will lose their urgency to keep crowds coming. Less attention will be given to fundraising and the congregation will begin to grow and bear fruit from souls coming to Christ. People will even think their pastor has become a better preacher. Of course, there will always be challenges... but the kind of problems that come from revival are preferable over the alternative.
4. There is No Substitute for Real Revival. In the absence of revival, there are many attempts to fabricate superficial substitutes. Beautiful buildings, large crowds, fascinating programs and performances are all wonderful things... but may not be indicative of a move of God’s presence. Excitement is also a good thing... much better than a dead, boring environment, however the attempt to hype-up spiritual enthusiasm is like trying to build a fire with smoke. Revival isn’t about the superficial trappings of the church or merely tickling the flesh with thrills... rather, it is about the internal workings of the Holy Spirit, renewing His people with intimacy and power... to refresh their love and vision of Jesus, to change and transform their lives into the likeness of Jesus Christ. Many marriages will be healed, families will be reunited, drunks will become sober, liars will quit lying, thieves will stop stealing. Jesus is the core of what the church is all about, and a real revival will always uplift Jesus front and center to its vision and purpose. A revived congregation will have a renewed love and passion for Jesus, will begin putting Him first in their thoughts, words and deeds... and will roll up their sleeves to do whatever necessary to begin bringing people to Christ.
5. Revival Cannot Come without Taking Risks. By and large, Christian leaders tend to be a conservative lot, protective of the ministry and the flock, devoted to a prescribed regimen of faith and doctrine, strong on tradition. These are exemplary traits... but in an environment that has become spiritually stagnant and cold, being locked into forms or traditional thinking can restrict the spiritual venture necessary to break out from a rut of lethargy and slumber. It may seem odd to some to call an all-night meeting to fast and pray... or perhaps risky to allow persons to confess sins or express their heart openly before the congregation, or to permit services to continue past noon, or to allow a service to take on an unordered, extemporaneous pattern. By all means, everything must always comply with the standards of God’s Word, but we also must be flexible enough to allow the Holy Spirit to lead where such elasticity is permissible... and be willing to step out of our “comfort zone” to allow God to do things that we cannot.
As one of our members said to me during the months of our revival, “I want to thank you pastor, not for bringing the revival... we know that it came from God... but we thank you so much for ‘allowing’ it to happen.” Yes, I could have easily shut it down, halted the services, or prevented what I feared might become a disorderly display of emotion or mayhem. But I was willing to take “measured” risks, or perhaps better described as steps of “faith” to promote such liberty that God’s presence could move freely among His people. Obviously, every congregation and situation is different, and this may not be the pattern that fits all other churches or scenarios... but if persons will pray and seek Him diligently, He will find a way to help you break out of the stalemate... if only to stumble across it as we did. There will always be some measure of risk to anything God tells us to do... but that’s what faith is all about, believing and trusting in God when the outcome seems uncertain.
6. Revival is worth pursuing. Not only is it worthwhile, sadly, without a spiritual renewal, many churches may end up withering away or closing their doors. For America, we also need a national revival, to bring lives back to the principles of God on which it was founded, otherwise I fear that our nation is going to face a swift and unpleasant demise. A spiritual awakening is something that only God can do... but we can help establish the necessary conditions. It will require much sacrificial prayer, a faithfulness to proclaim the truths and high ideals of God’s word, a willingness to die to our personal wants and preferences, and an obedience to humble ourselves to His will and desires. It will be challenging, but not nearly as much as it will be if we choose to ignore the need and continue business and usual. In the end, it will be worth it... and if no one else gets revived, at least you will!